Today is the International Day of the Girl Child. SHORAI NYAMBALO-NG’AMBI from Unicef Malawi shares a tale of a midwife who triumphed over child marriage and teen pregnancy to become a role model.
Every ambitious girl child in Mkata Village in Mangochi admires JausaSilika, 38. Every month, the community nurse and midwife helps almost 70 mothers deliver live babies at Malombe Health Centre, almost 40 kilometres east of Mangochi Town.
“I am proud of what I have done since 2014. I never imagined I would be where I am,” she says.
In 2012, Silika enrolled at Holy Family College of Nursing in Phalombe to do midwifery under a government programme to work in a rural community. Two years later, she obtained a certificate and passed the obligatory examinations administered by the Midwife’s and Nursing Council of Malawi.
“I had a burning desire to do school,” says the mother of two. “Besides my aunt’s support, uncle always talked about the importance of school.”
Silika, the first girl from Malombe to become a midwife, also worked at Katuli Health Centre in Mangochi.
Many organisations engage her as a role model for girls at risk of quitting school to get married. She volunteered as teach at her former primary school, Namasu, to give back to her area and encourage girls to remain in school.
Being a midwife in her area has made most girls start valuing education and avoid marrying young.
Yet Silika has fought many battles to become an admired midwife, including ditching a polygamous husband.
“I was cheated into marriage. I discovered the husband had two wives, making it difficult for me to stay. I left to continue with education,” she says.
The 13th born in a family of 15 children aspires to become a registered nurse and midwife technician.
This year’s International Day of the Girl—themed Girl Force: Unscripted and Unstoppable—requires young women, such as the midwife and the schoolgirls who want to be like her, to amplify their voices and stand up for their rights.
The observance celebrates achievements by, with and for girls like Silika since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years ago as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Going against the odds, Silika’s trouble, however, started when she was staying with her uncle in Blantyre City while going to a privately owned Islamic secondary school.
At her uncle’s place, she was impregnated by her cousin who had just returned from South Africa. The furious uncle sent her back to Mangochi, where she gave birth to a baby boy in 2000 at the age of 17. She dropped out of school.
However, village life became so unbearable that she went back to her uncle to start anew.
“My uncle was convinced that I didn’t like school and proposed that I do business instead. It was his wife, my aunt, who convinced him that I go back to school, so I re-enrolled in Form Two just to catch up,” she narrates.
In 2006, Silika passed the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations at Msalura Community Day Secondary School in Salima.
“When I came here in Mangochi, I was a star. With an MSCE in hand, people could not believe it was the same teen mother they knew. With this certificate paper, Traditional Authority [T/A] Chowe and many organisations involved me in several activities as a volunteer and role model,” she says.
While in Mangochi, she married a man she did not know was polygamous and later fled the marriage shortly after giving birth to her second child.
The midwife advises girls to remain in school and refrain from early sexual activities.
“Learn first and marry later. Those who got pregnant while in school shouldn’t lose hope, but continue until their dreams like I did,” she says.
Since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action came into force, there have been positive steps to empower girls.
Nowadays, girls are re-admitted to school after dropping out due to pregnancy or marriage.
Interestingly, chiefs are working closely with religious bodies, community members and schools to ensure girls sensitise people to the importance of girl’s education and dangers of child marriage.
“As traditional leaders, we have come up with village rules against child marriages. This has helped curb early marriages and allowed girls to remain in school,” says T/A Chowe. “During community meetings, I make it a point to encourage girls to remain in school. Whoever marries off a girl aged below 18 is punished heavily.”
Ending child marriage
In 2017, Parliament raised the marriageable age to 18, but about 42 percent of girls in the country marry younger–with nine percent marrying before their 15th birthday–due to poverty, cultural and religious traditions, and peer pressure.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Uncef) is working with government to protect girls and boys from child marriage and other harmful practices. Its country programme is increasing knowledge and understanding of the harm effects of child marriage.
Unicef works to abolish practices and behaviours harmful to children while ensuring they have access to child protection services, good health and education.
“We are partnering with traditional and religious leaders to break social norms that enable child marriages,” says AfroozKaviani Johnson, Unicef Malawi’s chief of child protection.
She says social and cultural beliefs about sexuality, child marriage and the position of girls in society contribute to the normalisation of violence against children and gender-based violence.
Beyond today’s commemoration, it is important to work together to strengthen girls’ rights to a safe childhood, education and skills—the right to the future they want.